Wednesday, May 28, 2014

silk and lace

One last post about Scranton and then I am done, I promise. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention my biggest revelation about the Scranton area: its silk and lace factories.

You read that right. Until the last lace factory closed in the astonishing year of 2002, Scranton had quite the textile industry.  The information boards at the loading dock for the coal mine tour mentioned a silk and lace industry in Scranton, which set me on a mission to find out more.

Silk bobbins on a bobbin winder, used to ply the individual strands together.

The information about this industry is side-by-side with the coal mining history contained in the Anthracite Heritage Museum, located just up the hillside from the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour.

This massive wheel was used to wind long sections of warp for the looms,
so more yards of fabric could be woven before re-warping.

The coal mines were worked by men, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe. This meant a large supply of workers, i.e., the women in their families, were available. Coupled with the cheap fuel supply from the coal mines and an extensive transportation network used to ship all that coal out, a textile industry sprang up to take advantage of these factors.

This silk industry gave rise to a lace industry, and the lace industry ended up lasting longer than the silk factories. These factories were instrumental in producing parachutes and other key supplies during World War II, but they were shuttered one by one in the post-war years.

The Scranton Lace Company, the last holdout, was renowned for its Nottingham lace. The plant was enormous, and in its heyday, included an employee bowling alley, infirmary, and a landmark clock tower. Slowly it dwindled away, until only 50 or so employees were left in the massive factory. One morning in 2002, mid-production, they were abruptly told by the management that the factory was ceasing operations as of that day.

One of the original looms from the Scranton Lace Company,
dating back to when the company started in 1891.

The perforated pattern cards, an early form of computer, visible behind the lace.

Stunned, the employees walked away from looms with lace in the midst of being woven. The factory is now being renovated, though its fate is uncertain. This video contains haunting images of the plant taken before the conversion began, and documents the once-mighty facility and the decay of a dozen years. The loss of this industry was another blow for the city, in a long line of them. It's the story of innumerable towns and cities across the rust belt, but that doesn't help it to be any less tragic. If anything, that fact that it managed to make it so long, decades longer than most, makes it even more heart-breaking.

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